While I was out running errands this morning, I saw a mother leading a toddler by the hand. The two of them were headed in my direction. As they drew near, the toddler stared at me, reaching up with his free hand as if he wanted to clutch at my skirt. I guess his mother noticed that something about me had captured his attention, because, rather than simply passing by and continuing on her way, she stopped and told him, "Say hello to the lady."
The little boy didn't say anything, but he didn't seem at all shy, and he continued to reach up and stretch out his fingers. It was almost as if he were a kitten wanting to bat at a dangling toy.
After a minute it struck me that he was looking at my parasol. I furled it, moving slowly so as not to startle him, and held it down so he could inspect it more closely.
"That's a parasol," his mother and I told him. "Parasol."
When it became clear that looking wasn't quite enough, I held it down still further, close enough for him to touch. He felt it gravely, rubbing the material between his fingers.
"Well, that's all right then," said his mother briskly. We nodded at each other, our transaction complete, and she led the little boy off.
I resumed my own progress a little more slowly. I was puzzled. Beijing is full of parasols at this time of the year. There's nothing special about mine. Not now, anyway. It's true that when I first had it I was very fond of it -- at that time it was a bright lemon-yellow, festive and sunny -- but over the years it has become grubby and faded. As I walked along toward the shops, I realized that I'd been discontented with it for a while now.
This set me thinking about the different kinds of parasols I would get if I could. Perhaps a navy-blue-and-white striped one, like a French sailor's shirt. Or a smart red, yellow and green one, like a cafe awning. Or, for very hot days, a pattern of cool green leaves, like the wallpaper in an old-fashioned drawing room.
The trouble is, the last time I looked in the catalogue that sells the sort of parasol I require -- it's made from cloth specially treated to block ultra-violet rays -- the only colors on offer appeared to be two shades of yellow (butter and lemon), a deep, dark blue, something between navy and indigo, and a rather nasty porridge-grey the manufacturers called "stone." They don't make anything else.
Actually, I do have one other parasol back home in the States -- lemon yellow trimmed with blue lace, left over from a friend's wedding. It is very pretty, but I wouldn't want to carry it on ordinary occasions, and anyway frilly lace isn't what I'm after now. I want something smart and sporty, or possibly something elegant and understated, but anyway something very fine and satisfying. It seems a great pity not to be able to have it.
I was feeling a little sorry for myself by the time I reached the shops. This was ironic, because my principal reason for visiting the shops this morning was to buy clothes hangers for some new summer skirts my mother had found at a sale and sent to me in a package that also contained anise cookies shaped like fish with currants for eyes. If I can't have the sort of parasol I would like, certainly my closet is overflowing with many other good things.
Then, while I was choosing hangers, something unexpected happened. An old lady standing near me in the aisle began chatting casually to me. "Look at this hanger. What were they thinking? All these hooks and doodads! Completely unnecessary! These plain ones are much better, don't you think?" As a matter of fact, I had been thinking exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment, but that wasn't really the strange part. The strange part was that she was the one who had started the conversation. Not many people here do this with foreigners, unless it's to ask where you're from or if you understand Chinese. But this old lady seemed not to care where I was from. We were just two women, shopping for hangers in a neighborhood supermarket.
On my way home, I began to feel a bit better. I'd been on the receiving end of some active friendliness from a total stranger. I had some new hangers for the skirts my mother had sent me. And a passing toddler had admired my parasol.
I found myself wondering if the little boy had been too young to notice the spots and blotches that seemed so evident to me, or if he'd seen something I couldn't, some bright blaze of possibility -- the parasol as it could be, perhaps, sunny and glowing, careless as a dandelion.
I suppose I suspected this last because it had been so easy to satisfy his wants. All he'd had to do was feel the thing, rub it between his fingers, and his needs were answered.
After thinking about it a little longer, I decided that it was too early to give up on my own wants. What is desire, after all, but an acknowledgement of prospect? Want need not always be accompanied by a sort of desolate hopelessness; we need not always turn our backs on the view that our hearts have awakened. Sometimes the things we wish for do come to us if we are patient. I almost feel I can see my new parasol now, as trim and fetching as a sailboat, bobbing on the horizon.